Feb 8, 2010

Smart Growth Conference: Conclusions and Lessons

SGN is a national network of more than 5,000 people and 42 partner organizations working together to facilitate smart growth in neighborhoods across the United States. The SGN is designed to encourage development that serves the economy, the community, and the environment, all at the same time.

The Smart Growth Conference ended on Saturday in one of the most inspirational ways with a powerful speech by former King County Executive and current Deputy Secretary of HUD Ron Sims.

In a wide ranging speech from the immediacy of combating Climate Change to the revitalization of our Urban centers, which Mr. Sims defined as any gathering of people with a semblance of central population and industry, Mr. Sims brought a reverential tone to the closing ceremonies. Many in the audience were shouting out agreement, clapping and nodding their heads. Many times the speech would be humorous and laughter would erupt suddenly to disperse as Mr. Sims slammed home a truism.

He spoke of sustainability and livability as two sides to the same argument often pairing the two terms in a quick slur of a phrase repeatedly. The two terms were then tied to the process of social justice and fair treatment. He made the point numerous times that nothing of consequence will change until we realize that we are all in this together and what happens to your neighbor does affect your own happiness. If there is no social justice everywhere there is no social justice anywhere.

Social Justice is an integral part of sustainability and there must not be a wall between the rich and the poor and a wall between the classes. We need to make the aspect of equality reach every section of our sustainable theories and practices. Make equality a means and an end.

The speech was a call to action for the three hundred or so crowd who gathered in the Convention Center Ballroom. It was practical and far reaching. It sent goosebumps at times with a silenced crowd when Mr. Sims talked about the struggles his parents went through and the incredible amount of personal strength it took them to be dehumanized in front of their children. The struggle of civil rights and fair treatment was used as an example of an idea that seems self evident in hindsight, but was unheard of when it began. He challenged us to again challenge the status quo and the expected outcomes.

"Think like a movement," Mr. Sims said, "Give up your single interests and your silos. Everything is connected whether you are a builder, a planner, a teacher, or an advocate."

A major theme in the speech was the power of diversity and terminology. "Begin to realize the power of terms. Terms have power." He wanted us to realize that the actions that take place in the communities we are trying to reach will fail if we do not frame the issues in terms the community will understand. We need to find the terms that are accessible and precise. We need to stop using our acronyms and jargon and connect the meaning back into our talk.

"The United States is the great human experiment. We are the first nation in history to be an economic power, a military power and a social power without a common ancestry. Our diversity of cultures, peoples, and backgrounds is what gives us our strength. Can you communicate with the people who look different than you?"

"Ignorance creates terrorism, disease, and war. We need to break the chains of ignorance."

"You may have a big house, but if you can't even talk to your neighbors, you are lonely."

"Poverty will not keep us apart."

The listening crowd was paying attention. They were not tapping on Blackberries or checking their Facebook status. They were looking and leaning forward. They stood up when called to and the ovation was genuine, positive and energized. Now the challenge is to keep going.

"In a relay teamwork matters and it doesn't matter how big a lead you have if the baton doesn't get passed on. You are the person I hand the baton to. Now, how are you going to win?"

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